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Being the Stranger at the Door
Your stories of asking for shelter
In the waning days of August, I shared a piece by Clare Coffey about the way that visiting an unfamiliar country can be an experience of dependence and gratitude (if it isn’t too buffered by careful plans and tours).
I asked you about your own experiences relying on strangers, whether abroad or at home, and I particularly appreciated the stories shared by two Sara(h)s.
Sara shared a story about a simple need that requires trust to receive:
About seven years ago, I was walking out of a Mass with a gaggle of religious sisters who would regularly attend the same daily Mass I did. I had my oldest daughter with me, who at the time was about 3 months old. My husband and I were in the midst of a move out of the city we'd called home for several years to a more rural area, closer to family. I was heartsick over the move and missing my husband who had moved a few months earlier than my daughter and me to start a job and find a house. These sisters were not strangers, we had worshipped together for a few months and I knew some of them by name, but I did not know them well. But that particular morning when one of them asked the usual, polite "how are you doing" question, I broke down crying. The sister immediately put her arm around me and walked me to their convent a few blocks away. Once there, they gave me a cup of coffee, listened to my little story of woe then played with my baby while I took a nap in a guest room. I remember it at one of the most loving mornings I've experienced.
I was really struck by this, since a quiet moment to sleep is something many mothers need so badly, but there’s an enormous vulnerability in asking for it.
First, it can be hard to trust someone to watch over you while you sleep, let alone your child. But it can also be hard to admit that this is the thing you need—that you aren’t able to get enough sleep on your own and you need someone’s help for it.
It can feel like we’re responsible for a certain minimum, and we can only ask for “extras” after we’ve done the basics. But, especially for parents of babies, it’s not always possible to stay above water as just a lone nuclear family.
The trouble is figuring out who and how to help. Right after a birth, there might be a meal train. During a sickness, after an operation, it’s easier to ask for help for an acute crisis. But what if your need is chronic and there’s no excuse of a sudden crisis, just a constant need?
Sarah reflected on her own posture as a tourist. How do you ask for help in the shadow of past entitlement?
If I go to country (especially a non-Western one, such as, for instance, Nepal that I visited a few weeks ago) in a spirit of humility, to not expect that my cultural values and mannerisms are the "default", I'm much more likely to have more positive engagements. As a former professor (himself British) once told my class, the standing instruction on being a student or tourist in a foreign country is to blend in, not stand out, and that requires a level of humility and graciousness that many Americans haven't learned to (or, worse, won't) adopt. Personally, I think "blending in" is especially important if you come from a culture with a history of colonialization and "power."
And while we’re on the topic of being welcomed as a stranger, I should have a piece next week in Deseret on the recent stranding of migrants in Martha’s Vineyard. For the moment, I’ll just say it’s a grave wrong to treat people like props or prank-fodder. Dumping people with no notice is a move intended to make it as hard as possible to help them.